Chuck Palahniuk & the American Dream
Chuck Palahniuk: diagnosis of a disillusion
Throughout history literature has always been a chronicle of the problems, afflictions and monsters that have haunted humanity. From Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Kafka’s human beings turning into bugs, great writers have been able to make a diagnosis of culture, and as culture changes we need new analysis of the diseases that afflict society.
At this time in which “American culture” is the United States’ most important export and an important influence in almost every other culture that exists, it is necessary and even a sign of hope that new writers have taken on the difficult task of offering a diagnoses of this culture’s sicknesses. The young American writer Chuck Palahniuk is a good example of this.
Chuck Palahniuk broke into the literary world when film director David Fincher made his first published novel into a successful film: Fight Club (1999), starring Edward Norton, Brad Pitt and Helena Bonham Carter. Despite the fact that at his first attempt to publish a novel he was unanimously turned down by publishers (who admitted they personally loved it but couldn’t take the risk), it was all uphill from there. Since then, Palahniuk has published that first novel (Invisible Monsters, 2000) together with four more: Survivor (1999), Choke (2001), Lullaby (2002) and recently Diary (2003).
His immoderate satires and outrageous cacophonous fiction has provided him with the reputation of being “a master of depicting the dark and depraved underbelly of our society” as well as making him the “torchbearer of the nihilistic generation”.
All his books deal heavily with the disillusionment of the American Dream. In fact, Palahniuk himself could be set as an example of this Dream: as a child, his family was so poor that his father would wake up the kids to loot train-wrecks in the middle of the night. After majoring in journalism at the University of Oregon and less than a year at a minimum-wage job, he became a truck mechanic until in his early thirties he began attending writing workshops with a few friends. With the success of Fight Club he was able to quit his day job to begin writing full-time. Nowadays he is a multi-millionaire and his work has reached cult status.
Nevertheless, he rejects the idea that his life-story is an affirmation of the American myth of the poor boy made rich. He is a full-on critic on the idea that working class Americans, if they only work hard enough, can pull themselves out of poverty. The reality is that the United States is a socially rigid society with even less class mobility than Europe, and getting worse. While George Bush cuts taxes for the 500 richest families, the poor get poorer.
Chuck says: "I only made good when I gave up on the model embodied by the American Dream. I packed in my job at the construction site. I said, screw this: I'm going to dedicate my life to learning one self-expressive skill. Even if I never get published, I'll dedicate my life to writing one really good sentence. My whole life, my parents said, nobody will ever pay you to read books. Nobody will ever pay you to write books. It was only when I gave up their American model - work more hours, kill yourself working - and dedicated myself to the impossible thing that I succeeded. "
The inability to see beyond the definition of the American Dream as a lifelong struggle to achieve money and material property which will necessarily lead to happiness has left us with a generation of the disillusioned. His message: "I realised in my twenties that the social model for happiness that my parents had brought me up with - based on trying to get money and property - just wasn't going to make me happy. I could live that life, but I'd be miserable. But I couldn't see anything beyond it. All they could tell me was, you know, get a nice house and pour all your energy into your garden. Work hard at having a really great yard. That's all they could say."
He predicts an epidemic of angry, uncomprehending people taking violence into their own hands, as the weapons that can cause serious damage get easier and easier to acquire. About Eric and Dylan, who massacred their classmates at Columbine high school, he says: "They were disillusioned because they saw through so much of the American dream. The Columbine kids were affluent kids, and they saw that affluence doesn't translate into happiness. They saw that comfort doesn't translate into happiness. They couldn't see any road map to happiness, and they knew the road map they had been given by American society was bust. If people have no way of expressing themselves, no route out of misery, then they pick up a gun as a last, final gesture. It's the same with the Arab world. 9/11 was an enormous gesture, a huge piece of performance art. I remember thinking as a kid: I can spend all my time smiling and being charming and be famous like JFK, or I can just pick up a gun tomorrow and be as famous as Lee Harvey Oswald."
In fact, Palahniuk had to deal with one of these desperate individuals when his father was killed a few years ago and his body dissolved in a garage. The man who murdered his father (for sleeping with the killer's wife after they met through the personal ads) was involved in the white supremacist movement in Idaho. When he was sentenced to the death penalty, the killer announced he had built five anthrax bombs and buried them across the city of Spokane, and that if the state executed him, he would never reveal their whereabouts.
"This kind of destruction is going to become more frequent," he says. "Right now there's a man in New Zealand who's built the first privately owned ICBM (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile) and thrown all these governments into disarray. He has no warhead, obviously. But they're realizing that this can happen. Individuals are gaining these capabilities. It's happening.” However, Palahniuk’s anger makes this kind of mass-destruction seem unfrightening to him, although sometimes this anger mutates into bitter despair: his novels are filled with thoughts of suicide, and a leifmotif is the belief that, in far more circumstances than most people will admit, death is actually the least-bad option. "Maybe self-improvement isn't the answer," the narrator of Fight Club says, "Maybe self-destruction is the answer."
Choke, his fourth book, marks his shift from nihilism to existentialism. It is the point at which he starts to offer a positive philosophy; before, he only offered a diagnosis of terminal disease. Victor concludes at the end of that novel, "It's creepy, but here we are, the Pilgrims, the crackpots of our time, trying to establish our own alternate reality. To build a world out of rocks and chaos." This philosophy stands in a clear line of descent that can be traced from Fyodor Dostoevsky through Herman Hesse and Jean-Paul Sartre. Palahniuk believes from this point on that once you hit rock bottom and see that there is no meaning in the world, you are entirely free, because then you get to create your own meaning. Soren Kirkegard - his favourite philosopher - said that once you accept nihilism, you are free to make a vast leap of faith to believe whatever you want.
But in this society we live in, washing off disillusion with antidepressants, the problem is that "they allow you to escape the moment when you have to face up to the failures of the social model you're living in. You never reach that nil point. You never hit despair, so you never come back from it. Kirkegard didn't count on Prozac. Prozac allows you to skim along and avoid reaching the crisis that forces you to make a leap of faith." In fact he himself uses the anti-depressant Zoloft on and off, mainly in the winter now, but he believes they have a dangerous social function. "Anti-depressants are drugs that allow you to tune out and watch those lifestyle network shows. They're part of an America that tells you: Keep repainting the house. Keep dying your hair. Keep rooting for your football team. And then, sooner or later, you'll die."
Palahniuk's fiction returns repeatedly to the blanding out of American culture, and the idea that capitalism occupies and nulls the consciousness of individuals. In Fight Club, the narrator says, "Our culture has made us all the same. No-one is truly white or black or rich anymore. We all want the same. Individually, we are nothing." In Choke, a character says, "We're so structured and micro-managed, this isn't a world anymore, it's a damn cruise ship." In Lullaby, he reveals the philosophy behind this: "Old George Orwell got it backward. Big Brother isn't watching. He's singing and dancing. He's pulling rabbits out of a hat. Big Brother's busy holding your attention every moment you're awake. He's making sure you're always distracted?. He's making sure your imagination withers. Until it's as useful as your appendix? With everyone's imagination atrophied, no one will ever be a threat to the world."
Maybe this is the reason his novels have been able to connect with the bored, disenchanted youth of America. "When you think about what a small percentage of the people in this huge culture actually control things, it's staggering that more people aren't controlling their culture. It's only a tiny handful. And why is that? That's what breaks my heart. And I think young people, with the Internet and the availability of technology, are more and more able to get their stuff out. But then I worry whether by the time they have the technology we will have cut expressive courses in high school and college to the point that no one has the ability anymore to express themselves in an entertaining, balanced, or interesting way. Band and art and creative writing, or any of those things that we don't see as vocational, could actually be the most important courses, because they give kids a way of expressing themselves other than breaking things."
At this time in history his fiction feels more realistic than ever. Indeed, his novels are all located in a world where ideas and visions are breaking down. In Choke, he writes that "the Enlightenment is over. We are now living in the Dis-Enlightenment." He also says that, "The one recurring theme of our age is that all the big narratives, all the big stories are breaking down. We don't have any stories to replace them yet. But we want a rule-book, we want a Bible." Yet when these belief systems are created in Palahniuk's novels, they are terrifying examples of how despair can be suddenly replaced by a blind, wild faith in a single strong man. "That's a big worry. Once you have the hunger and longing we have in America for a leader, there's a big danger. The best way to unify power is to create a common enemy. George Bush is doing that. Osama Bin Laden is doing that. It's the easiest way to pull people together."
Still, at these times when the American Dream is under question and these kind of cultural diagnoses seem more than necessary, even Palahniuk has been forced to take a more mainstream approach in his last two novels: "I have switched to writing horror novels, because in America today, you just can't do transgressive fiction. Nobody wants to hear that message, and certainly nobody wants to laugh about it. Americans don't want to be criticised right now. They just won't hear it. The day of 9/11, I realised this was happening. You could not have published Fight Club on September 12 or since. The American public is not going to have any sympathy or understanding for subversive art or arguments for a long, long time."
"Whether it's eco-terrorism, monkey wrench gangs, or cultural terrorism like Trainspotting, people just do not see it the same way anymore," he says. "They can't laugh at it. If you're going to say anything about culture, you have to do it carefully and in a charming, entertaining way, like George Orwell did with Animal Farm. In the 1950s, people got so good at using science fiction and fantasy to say things about the culture that they couldn't say straight out. So that's why I've moved to horror novels."
So is the author who wrote some of the most daring, smart anarchist critiques of American culture selling out? Turning into Stephen King? He insists that his message hasn't changed, just the medium through which he conveys it. "Protest has been thoroughly co-opted by companies like Diesel Jeans now," he says. "They use protest as a marketing tool for the very things it's meant to be a protest against. I mean - Madonna dressing as Che Guevara! When you get to that point, protesters have to put on a nice white shirt and try something different to get your message across. I do it through my novels. Michel Foucault said that protest needs to evolve into something fun, something that doesn't seem threatening, but does gradually change the way people think."
At the beginning I said writers become pathologists of culture. Sometimes by pointing out the diseases of society they can make it easier to find a cure, sometimes it is enough that they recognize the illness that goes seemingly unnoticed and is even confused with health. It’s hard to tell what’s the case with Chuck Palahniuk’s work, if it will make it easier to find a cure. However, in my opinion, the disillusion that he describes is a sad reality in the United States and in the Western world in general. Maybe the American Dream needs to be questioned to its core, hope as a main value does not work anymore. Maybe things will never change unless we take action, do something to go beyond the model of society that we have inherited, based on material happiness and the need to fit in, to blend with the rest. To quote Palahniuk one last time: "I see hope as this rather pointless, amorphous emotion. Hope doesn't accomplish anything. Action accomplishes something. The idea that a possibility creates something... Sitting around hoping for something doesn't do much."